Eden’s Thrill Ride
Sublime sights and shooting the rapids at Manila’s Pagsanjan Falls.
Head bowed and knees bent, I maneuvered out of the cramped jeepney past a nun in full habit and a schoolgirl in a tartan skirt, and over the outstretched legs of a headphoned teen fast asleep. Neon signs glowed through the falling night — CAFE HAVANA, UPSTAGE, HOSTEL 1682, UNLIMITED RUM! — Japanese and Korean characters in electric blue. The buildings before me pulsed with the sounds of deep house and local bands covering old British punk and new wave numbers. A pack of students sashayed past, leaving a trail of cigarette smoke and citrusy perfume. From food stalls came the rich saline smells of fish balls, tempura and kikiam (pork and vegetables enveloped in bean curd) bubbling in lard.
I looked back at the jeepney as it juddered off through the traffic. On its side door was a spray-painted Virgin Mary with a fluorescent green halo, and a San Miguel beer sign fluttered on its rear bumper. For me, these images sum up the best of Manila: the sacred, the indulgent and the artistic, all rolled into one.
With such an entrance, I headed into the district of Ermita, thought to provide the best night out in Manila. But by the time I emerged into the dawn light hours later, feeling overpowered by the noise, the crowds and the traffic, I longed for the district’s early days — when Ermita was a green, quiet and peaceful hermitage for Spanish clergymen.
Fortunately, I knew of such a sanctuary that yet exists, only a short trip outside of central Manila: the Pagsanjan Falls and National Park. The Philippines regularly ranks as one of the best countries in the world for ecotourism, and the Pagsanjan Falls make up a major ingredient of that good reputation. Frothy water showers like Champagne some 90 meters down a leaf-dusted crevice and into a sparkling, pear-hued pool. The fresh, tea-like scent of the water mingles with the sweet aromas of tropical plantlife. Some of the rarest birds in the Philippines, from plump, brown bitterns to black-winged ospreys, rustle in the canopies of evergreen apin trees while dragonflies and butterflies hum and flicker ethereally along the banks of the Pagsanjan River. Pistia stratiotes plants, described by the early American botanist Henry Allen Gleason as “yellow-green rosettes,” float along the calmer stretches of the river, adding to the fairytale vibe.
Over time, the Falls have meant different things to different cultures. The aboriginal indio people believed in a vivid creation myth that explained how the Falls were born from a devastating drought. As the landscape was drying up and the animals were dying off, so the myth goes, two brothers named Balubad and Magdapio prayed for rain — but the gods weren’t listening. Balubad, the weaker of the pair, soon succumbed to thirst, and Magdapio buried him inside what is now known as Balubad Mountain. Crazed with grief, Magdapio clambered up the cliffside and screamed to the heavens, “Where is the water?”
Still, no reply came, so Magdapio hurled his staff against the walls of the canyon, and this time the gods did respond: A spring gushed forth from the spot where the cane landed and became the Pagsanjan Falls. Magdapio gratefully drank from the water, just as indios did for centuries.
In true Romantic fashion, the Spanish colonizers regarded the Falls as a sublime testament to nature’s power, and they quickly established it as an official tourist attraction. In 1894, the American traveler Joseph E. Stevens compared a piloted banca (dugout canoe) ride toward the Falls to being in “El Dorado, a visionary and unreal paradise” and to visiting “the boudoir of Nature herself.” Stevens was also thrilled by the return leg of the journey, when the pilot turned the banca round and raced down 16 fast and furious rapids. It was, Stevens concluded, “an inimitable, unexcelled, wouldn’t-have-missed-it-for-world excursion.”
The excursion remains just as popular today, with bancas transporting visitors from the bridge in Pagsanjan town directly downriver to the Falls. When I took the pleasant 1.5-hour voyage myself, I witnessed the full Edenic wonder of the Pagsanjan Gorge, its steep, primordial walls saturated with lush emerald vegetation. The banquero (pilot) skillfully steered the boat so that it almost danced from rock to rock, maintaining our speed until we reached the waterfall. Long before we saw the Falls, though, we heard their gentle fizzing in the distance — a little like the amplified sound of Alka-Seltzer dissolving in water. Once they came into view, we transferred to a small raft in order to float around and behind the blazing white torrent and into the arched mouth of the Devil’s Cave. Like a set from Lord of the Rings, the cave is dark and slightly uncanny, and the overactive part of my imagination pictured trolls or other nefarious creatures lurking nearby.
Heart in mouth and hat firmly held onto, I then shot the rapids home — a feat involving breakneck speeds and sharp turns to dodge boulders and tree trunks, and that left me quite drenched. (Before setting off, the pilot suggested that all passengers place our valuables in waterproof bags — wise advice indeed.)
Visitors who prefer to stick to terra firma can trek down to the Falls from the Pueblo El Salvador Nature Park & Picnic Area, located in the small agricultural settlement of Cavinti. After a half hour of hiking through lofty trees, it’s another 500 steel steps down the gorge to then rappel (equipment is provided by park management) 15 or so meters below to catch the most stunning views possible of the waterfall. Visitors will be reminded of the aerial shots in the closing scenes of the classic Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now, filmed here in 1978.
Refreshed by the serenity of the surroundings, I then set off to explore the locale of Cavinti itself. As remarkable in its own way as the Falls, the Cavinti Underground River and Caves Complex comprises two large chambers (a third is inaccessible to the public) filled with bizarre, otherworldly rock formations and fossilized shells. Warm clothing and a powerful flashlight proved essential for fully experiencing the cold, pitch-black interior. On more than one occasion, rubber-soled shoes and a hard hat saved me from injuring myself on the table-sized stalactites and stalagmites — including a 12-foot-high circular stone reminiscent of both an enormous grapefruit and a large cathedral bell.
Journeying to Manila means reaching the gateway to all the natural wonders of the Philippines. From white-sand beaches and verdant hills to sealife-studded reefs and underground rivers, the 7,100+ islands that comprise the country abound with beauty. Here, we introduce only a taste of the feast-worthy locales.